Creative Nonfiction

EXPLORING THE BOUNDARIES

JULIA KOETS is the winner of the 2017 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Award, judged by Mark Doty, for her forthcoming book, The Rib Joint: A Memoir in Essays (November 5, 2019). She is a visiting assistant professor of nonfiction at the University of South Florida.

AN OCTOPUS PROTECTS itself by hiding in plain sight. Lacking either an internal or external skeleton, and with thousands of pigment-changing cells just below the surface of its skin, in disguise, it can change not only its color but also its texture and shape. An octopus can blend in with almost anything: rough head of coral, spiny polyp cluster, tunicate-ridden side of a sunken ship.

As two University of California–Berkeley biologists discovered, one species of octopus disguises itself by wrapping its six arms around its body and walking backward on its two legs. Another octopus “coils its two front arms and raises them in a pose that somewhat resembles algae.” Without a rib cage to protect its three hearts, one particular species known as the “mimic octopus” can shapeshift into a sea snake, flounder, or lionfish.

I disguised myself for years. I hid in plain sight. In college, my best friend, Kate,* and I slept together in a small twin bed, as if inside a jar—it didn’t seem possible that we could both fit so comfortably. We locked the door to her bedroom, as if sealing a lid, making sure no one could get inside.

Unlike the octopus, curiously able to open and escape a sealed container, I could not imagine such openness. I could not imagine coming out. Not in the South. Not at nineteen.

KATE AND I met during the first week of college. The afternoon of the first day of classes, I sat nervously in a small classroom, waiting for the math professor to arrive. I smiled when Kate walked past me and chose the seat behind mine. I noticed how pretty she was—her shoulder-length blonde hair, her long neck, her peacock-green eyes.

Maybe we went to lunch after class that day, or maybe we studied for the first test together later that week, or maybe we ran into each other in a dorm hallway. The truth is, I can’t remember exactly where it happened, but it wasn’t long before Kate and I were always together, joined at the hip.

our small Southern college town, Kate and I drove. We left our quiet campus late at night in the blue 1990 Oldsmobile sedan I had inherited from my grandmother. Some nights, we didn’t pass a single car on the road. All that seemed

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